Slack and the dream of replacing e-mail

Slack co-founder and CTO, Cal Henderson (Image: Slack)

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8 May 2017 | 0

There can be no doubt that removing the barriers to collaboration in enterprise is a worthwhile endeavour. However, when the situation is approached from a non-enterprise start point, it can be tricky.

Learning experience
Cal Henderson, co-founder and CTO of Slack speaking to TechPro, fully admits that it has been a learning experience for his company to understand how enterprise buys, manages and uses applications, but the success of its products in that market speaks for itself.

“It’s like the cockroach of the Internet, it will be impossible to get rid of once it’s there”

From before the launch of Enterprise Grid in January of this year, Slack has grown steadily in enterprise from early adopters to mainstream in a short space of time. Henderson notes that while there has been particular success in certain areas, such as newsrooms in media companies, the reality is that any business that requires close collaboration of teams of any size, and any number of teams, can benefit from this rapidly maturing set of tools. This is evidenced not only from early adopters such as IBM, but also 21st Century Fox, CapitalOne and PayPal.

There have been a few drivers towards this success, said Henderson. Firstly, he said that replacing email as a communication and collaboration medium was a central goal.

Previous approaches to replace email had been unsuccessful, he admits, but where you can control the lines of communication at both ends, such as in a team, e-mail is not fit for purpose and can be supplanted.

A dream
On the prospect of replacing e-mail, Henderson is unequivocal: “It’s a dream.”

“It’s like the cockroach of the Internet, it will be impossible to get rid of once it’s there.”

The consumer experience, particularly around the smart phone, of communication and collaboration has made email even less accommodating, said Henderson. New messaging is less formal, more to the point and, he said, does not require the likes of subject lines, salutations, or long trails of replies, etc.

Inside Slack the company, email is for communicating with people outside, said Henderson.

Perhaps surprisingly, the end user functionality of Slack for the enterprise user is not that different to what Henderson admits was the mainly consumer product.

Slack Enterprise Grid is more about manageability in the enterprise context, both in terms of enterprise considerations such as eDiscovery, data loss prevention (DLP) and compliance, as well as security and identity management, and licensing.

Henderson said that a key part of its enterprise offering was its ‘fair billing’ policy.

We only charge per seat if the user is actively using it, said Henderson, with refunds paid for unused seats.

“The only way in which we are successful as a business is by making a product that people actually use.”

Continuous improvement
Another central driver from the consumer world is the idea of continuous improvement, and that is carried through into the enterprise offering. Henderson said that, over time, Slack should increase in value, instead of just continuing to provide a certain level of service to a customer.

This comes about in two ways, the first being a consumer-like experience of constant updates and improvements, through an as-a-service model. The second, said Henderson, is that the longer it is used, the more knowledge that is gathered within it, and so should be more easily leveraged in terms of value to the customer.

So, it is not only knowledge about the projects that is recorded there, but also about processes and methodologies that can be revealing and provide insights into how your people, teams and structures work, said Henderson. Every new user to Slack still has the benefit of the historic use of the tool within that organisation, which is so much more valuable than an empty email inbox on day one.

A user can see how decisions are made, not just by whom, he said. That can be different for every company, but can be a very useful guide to get people up to speed.

On top of all that, if we provide a very good search experience, he argues, it increases the value. Google has changed the way we search in the world of general information, but no one has done that well inside enterprise, and it is not easy. Today, even a medium sized company may have bought software from 30-40 different vendors. This proliferation of vendors has made it nigh on impossible to find the right information in a timely, efficient manner.

Tied together
“We think that communication is the one place where it makes sense to tie it together,” said Henderson.

“Whatever the set of tools you use for your business, Slack is a good place to tie them together. We have our platform,” said Henderson, “and a set of open APIs on which first and third parties can build, whether that is just notifications coming into your Slack, or controlling other software through integrated buttons in the Slack messages, or more complex things like interacting with bots.”

He gives an example of the widely used Concur expense reporting system, which Slack users can leverage via a bot allowing them to have expenses registered by simply sending a picture.

Henderson argues that shaving time from such processes here and there all adds up to time that teams can spend on innovation and being more productive.

“Being able to tweak a little bit of efficiency out of communication can be huge,” he argues.  “At the scale of large enterprise, it can be a big win.”

Speaking tech
Henderson was in Dublin to speak at a series of tech talks, and to participate more fully in the tech scene. He said he spoke about operations and service infrastructure to a very good turnout, and looks forward to getting more involved in the Dublin tech community.

He said that Dublin will soon be the largest Slack site outside of the San Francisco HQ, with around 150 people expected to be on site by the end of the year covering a range of functions, such as customer support, sales, some technical operations, business administration. Europe, he said, is a major market for Slack and Ireland is key to managing that.

The city, said Henderson, was an ideal site for the company, with not just good availability of talent, both domestic and imported, but also with the ability, across many fronts, to attract skilled workers too, while also enjoying support from government and agencies, along with a convenient time zone.

Slack’s head of customer experience Ali Rayl explained the importance of customer experience on TechRadio. Listen below:

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